Monthly Archives: January 2012

Book: “Smoked,” by Patrick Quinlan

I found Smoked (2006) at Half-Price Books, and I more than got my money’s worth. Three years ago, bombmaker Smoke Dugan made off with $2.4 million, and his employers want it back. He disappeared, but now has been located in Maine.

Denny Cruz, a proficient hitman who is having second thoughts about his chosen profession, is sent to capture Dugan. Accompanying him, against his wishes, are two other killers who may or may not have been told to also kill Cruz–Cruz isn’t sure. They capture Dugan, he escapes, and then the fun begins.

Lola Bell, Dugan’s karate-loving girlfriend, gets dragged into the plot, as does Lola’s roommate, mousy librarian Pamela. Two hapless pornographers, through an unrelated incident with Lola, in which she got the best of them, also get involved.

Smoked is told through shifting points of view, always third-person. A single scene may be told from several different perspectives. There is one marvelous scene, a shootout, in which Dugan, the three hitmen (with Lola in tow), and the pornographers all converge from different directions. We see the action from every one of these seven persons’ eyes. We watch as one man walks over to another man lying on the ground, preparing to shoot him, and then the point of view shifts to another person, and we see what happens next through that person’s perspective.

It works very well, mainly because Quinlan does such a good job of defining interesting characters. Each of these characters are real, believable persons, and you grow to like each one in their own disturbed way.

You can’t predict what’s going to happen. Everyone gears up for a particular event or confrontation, but then something happens and the plot veers in another direction. There is plenty of humor, plenty of action, and Quinlan keeps your attention. Smoked is a little bit Carl Hiaasen and a little bit Duane Swierczynski.

This was Patrick Quinlan’s debut novel. He has since written several more books since. I’ll keep on the lookout for them.

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Those FoxNews Blondes

FoxNews blondes hired by Roger Ailes over the years.

Roger Ailes, head of FoxNews, has a real thing for blondes.

He has three basic requirements for female correspondents and anchors:

  • You’re blonde.
  • You’re white.
  • You look good wearing a very short skirt and sitting on an open couch, chair, or stool. (Because Roger’s certainly not going to put you behind a tasteful desk.)

Imagine two women sitting outside Roger Ailes’ office, waiting to be interviewed for a job at FoxNews. One is a blonde in a short skirt. The other is a brunette wearing…well, it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. You know who’s getting the job.

Yes, you’ll occasionally see a Hispanic, and there’s Michelle Malkin to represent Asians. Roger Ailes lets them keep their dark hair. But with few exceptions, if you’re a white woman and your name is not Sarah Palin, he requires that you be blonde, or at least heavily highlighted.

I have trouble telling the FoxNews women apart. They all tend to look like Megyn Kelly.

Roger’s predilections apparently don’t bother conservative women viewers. Hey, he’s a powerful guy and a champion of conservative values, so he can hire whoever he wants. And the correspondents themselves don’t mind being objectified. Though I imagine it gets uncomfortable sometimes sitting rigidly on that couch, knowing you don’t dare move your legs until the next commercial break.

In the photo (click to enlarge): Some of the blondes over the years at FoxNews and Fox Business Channel. Row 1 (top row): Juliet Huddy, Ainsley Earhardt, Jamie Colby, Jill Dobson, Molly Hennenberg, Molly Line, Paige Hopkins, Ginger Williams, Nicole Petallides. Row 2: Dana Perino, Megyn Kelly, Molly Line, Alisyn Camerota, Lis Wiehl, Margaret Hoover. Molly Falconer, Alicia Acuna, Melissa Francis. Row 3: Martha McCallum, Jennifer Eccleston, Lauren Sivan, Jane Skinner, Sandy Rios, Janice Dean, Meredith Whitney, Brooke Alexander, Sandra Smith. Row 4: Courtney Friel, ED Hill, Ann Coulter, Gretchen Carlson, Marianne Rafferty, Elizabeth Prann, Lisa Bernhard, Claudia Cowan, Gerri Willis. Row 5: Heather Childers, Heather Nauert, Cheryl Casone, Donna Fiducia, Monica Crowley, Jenna Lee, Lind Vester, Rita Cosby, Louise Pennell. Row 6: Shannon Bream, Greta Von Sustern, Laura Dhue, Caroline Shively, Laura Ingle, Amy Kellogg, John Gibson, Glenn Beck, Steve Doocy.

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Musings about the Joseph Story

I’m doing the One Year Bible readings (works great on my Nook), and am just finishing Genesis.

We’ve all heard countless sermons about Joseph’s miraculous rise to the Number Two spot in Egypt. But I’ve never heard a sermon from Genesis 47, which tells how he carried out his job during the famine years.

By this time, his family has settled in Egypt, in the land of Goshen–the best land in Egypt. I imagine other families were expelled from Goshen to make room for Jacob’s clan and all their herds. That probably made some people mad, people capable of holding multi-generational grudges (not unlike today’s Palestinians).

(By the way–I wonder if Joseph and the brothers ever told Jacob what had really happened. About Joseph being sold into slavery, rather than being killed by an animal. I’ll bet they agreed, “Hey, Dad’s an old man. He can’t handle hearing this,” and that Jacob never learned the true story.)

Anyway, when the 7 years of famine struck (after the 7 good years), Joseph had enough food stored up to feed the Egyptian people. But he didn’t just give it away. No, he made them pay for it. Even though they had already grown it.

First, Joseph took their money, until they didn’t have any more to give. Then he took their livestock as payment, until, as the Bible says, Pharoah owned all the horses, sheep, donkeys, goats, and cattle in the land. When they had no more livestock to trade for food, he took their land. The people, understandably, freely gave up everything to get food. When they had no more assets to give, they gave themselves as slaves.

In the end, Joseph had pretty much nationalized the whole Egyptian economy. He controlled the food supply, owned every piece of land, owned all the livestock, and owned the very people as slaves. Everything now belonged to Pharoah. And Joseph had made it happen.

Throughout this, God’s direction is never mentioned, nor did Joseph give glory to God in any way. The reason, I’m sure, is that God didn’t want anythng to do with it. That’s not the way God wants people to govern.

Again, I’ve never, not once, heard a sermon even mention this. Kind of hard to explain to kids, how this is the same guy with the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

But consider Joseph’s dilemma. With his family in the land, Joseph lost much of his own freedom. He couldn’t act out of principle. Not anymore. Because if he displeased Pharoah in any way, not only might his own life be forfeit (like that poor baker’s), but so might the lives of all of his family. He had to protect them, and that meant doing whatever it took to appease Pharoah.

I imagine this weighed heavily on Joseph. He knew that, when he was out of the picture, his family–whom he had brought to Egypt, and sheltered, and provided for–would be in grave danger. That’s why he talked to them about returning to Canaan once he was gone.

Exodus tell us that a king “who knew not Joseph” came to power. Maybe some of this king’s friends or relatives were among those former Goshen-dwellers whom the Israelites displaced, and they wanted revenge. Exodus 1 says enemies engaged in fear-mongering about these immigrants, saying they were becoming too numerous and might help overtake the country (sounds like Americans talking about Hispanic or Muslim immigrants). And fear worked. Whereas the whole rest of Egypt had been enslaved under Joseph, now the Jews–Joseph’s people–became slaves. Payback.

Just some interesting musing about the potential backstory.

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Having the Liberal Label Forced Upon You

The “liberal” label applies to a lot of issues which, to me, Christians should be in favor of.

Every Democratic president gets pummeled by Republicans as “the most liberal president ever.” There is always some supposedly independent organization with a scoring system which tracks voting records on specific issues, and uses that score to determine just how liberal or conservative you are. So President Obama is being decried as the most liberal president ever, as well as the most fascist, socialist, and Islamic president ever.

But there are legitimate and often biblical reasons for Christians to hold views which Republicans blast as godless liberalism. This really vexes me. Because if you hold any views which aren’t endorsed by FoxNews and Rush, you’re labeled a heretical liberal. And I reject that label.

  • Do you stick up for the poor, like Jesus did? You’re a liberal.
  • Are you concerned about taking care of the environment? You’re a liberal.
  • Are you angered about factory farming and other cruelty to animals? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you oppose the death penalty? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you think religion should be left to parents and kept out of schools? You’re a liberal.
  • Are you against the three-strikes crime rule? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you believe there’s a place for affirmative action? Liberal.
  • Do you think unions, with their mixed bag of pros and cons, do have a legitimate role? Liberal.
  • Do you support embryonic stem cell research? Liberal.
  • Do you believe in restrictions on assault weopons? Liberal.
  • Do you oppose torturing prisoners of war? Liberal.
  • Do you think the US should keep its international agreements? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you oppose corporal punishment of children? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you feel the United Nations has a valuable role in our world? Blatant liberal.
  • Do you favor decriminalizing marijuana? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you advocate organic farming? You are such a liberal.
  • Do you think green technology is a good thing? You’re a liberal.
  • Concerned about the growing gap between the super-rich and everyone else? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you believe Wall Street should be regulated to prevent recklessness which harms our economy? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you favor net neutrality–leaving the internet as it is now, as opposed to giving internet providers broad new powers? You’re a liberal.
  • Are you against the military Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell policy? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you believe the government should fight discrimination against women and minorities? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you believe food stamps meet a legitimate need? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you believe the government should provide consumer protection regarding food, drugs, child safety, and other things? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you believe global warming is happening, and is largely caused by man? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you advocate rehabilitating prisoners, rather than just punishing them? You’re a liberal.
  • Do you believe that the government needs to raise more revenue to meet its obligations? Liberal.

I know conservative evangelicals who hold all of those views. I personally hold most of them, and in many cases, for solid biblical reasons. So I’m a liberal? A godless liberal? (As the right-wing media characterizes people who hold such views.) That just burns me up. Especially since I take so seriously how the Bible speaks to issues.

Who decided those are liberal views? Why isn’t concern for the environment a conservative cause? Or deep concern for the poor? Or consumer protection? Why do so many Christians oppose those stands? Although I prefer voting for a Republican, if it means electing someone who will oppose all of those views listed above–well, their case will need to be very compelling.

This is why I reject being either a Democrat or a Republican. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.” When I take on the Democrat or Republican label and loyally adopt their approved issues and candidates, I am conforming to a pattern of this world–something not determined by  God, but by man.

I reject the way issues are pigeon-holed as either liberal or conservative. While my roots and sentiments are Republican, I totally refuse to hold views just because that is the accepted Republican view. If I believe a viewpoint is rooted in Christian values, I’m not going to believe otherwise just because Republican gurus advocate something different, no matter how they rationalize it.

No way do I want to identify as a Democrat. I do oppose a number of “liberal” issues (particularly in the pro-choice arena). And yet, I side with President Obama and Democrats on a great many issues, and for reasons in line with my faith (rather than with ideology). According to man-made definitions, that makes me a liberal. I really hate that. But if my religious convictions require that I be called a “liberal,” so be it.

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The Republican Sabre-Rattling about Iran

Perhaps my main fear about electing Gingrich or Santorum, and to a lesser extent Romney, is that they’ll get us into a war with Iran. They’ve been sabre-rattling like crazy. I have few doubts that Gingrich or Santorum would start a war. They just seem to really really REALLY want to attack Iran. I think (hope) Romney’s sabre-rattling is just pandering to the Republican base.

We don’t need to return to the Cowboy posturing of the Bush administration. Can you imagine if the Bushies had gotten Bin Laden, how grandly they would have strutted their stuff? Obama has done a little of that, but has been quite restrained–mostly just going about prosecuting the war with more focus than Bush ever did, and keeping the braggadocio in check.

The Daily Beast ran a great article by Peter Beinart about the candidates’ war-mongering rhetoric, and their past support for the Iraq war. It’s a good reminder of what kind of people we’re electing.

We really don’t need a war with Iran. We need cool heads about this.Obama will get us out of Afghanistan. Republicans will keep us there, might get us back into Iraq, and will probably start something with Iran. Scary stuff to me.

On a related note: A good article by Victoria Toensing about Newt’s philandering.

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Movies We Saw in 2011

Pam and I saw more movies in 2011 than I thought. Here’s the list of 2011 releases that we saw (though a few we saw on video). They are ranked, with my favorites first.

  1. Real Steel
  2. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  3. War Horse
  4. Footloose
  5. Captain America
  6. Adjustment Bureau
  7. Hanna
  8. X-Men First Class
  9. Super 8
  10. I Am Number 4
  11. Cowboys and Aliens
  12. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
  13. Thor
  14. Source Code
  15. Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1
  16. Battle: Lost Angeles
  17. The Way Back
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Firing Up the Snowblower

Today, January 21, I ran my Troybilt snowblower for the first time this year. Or this snow season. Those mysterious Almanac people always predict a harsh winter ahead, and this year was no different. “It’s gonna be a tough winter,” we were told. But not until today did we get enough snow to require revving up the snowblower. And already, the temperature is heading toward 40 degrees.

Actually, I’ve not been anxious to use the snowblower. Not because I dislike snow (though I do), but because I wasn’t sure it would work.

The last time I used the snowblower, last March of 2011, here’s what happened.

I always clear the snow from my neighbors’ driveway. They are an older couple. Doesn’t take but a few minutes. But last March, I sucked up a newspaper buried in the snow on their driveway. The paper lodged tightly in the blades, up in the auger, and the machine wouldn’t run. I left their driveway partially cleared and pushed the Troybilt back to my garage.

I tried everything I could think of to remove the newspaper. Screwdrivers, knives, heavy pliers. I removed some parts. Nothing worked. The newspaper was wedged so firmly, it was practically a solid. Like a block of wood.

I messed with it for probably an hour, frustrated. Then I had an idea.

Paper burns.

I considered the fact that gasoline remained in the engine, that I was doing this inside my low-ceilinged garage, that maybe–I didn’t really know–the contraption might just ignite and explode and burn down the whole house. But I was cold, frustrated, and well on the road to beyond caring.

Fire it would be.

I tipped the snowblower on its side, and lit a match to the jammed newspaper. The snow and general wetness didn’t cooperate. A little flame would take hold on a corner of paper, then it would go out. I went through a bunch of matches. Finally, a small flame seemed to take hold. It grew, spreading slowly in the compacted newspaper. And then….

Whoosh!

Flames shot up the plastic chute, where snow comes out. I wasn’t really expecting that. It happened fast, and it happened large. Fortunately, in my one single attempt to Plan for the Worst, I was holding a bottle of Ice Mountain water in my hand. I threw the water on the fire, and it went out, mostly.

My heart was beating pretty strong at this point. “That was stupid stupid stupid!”

I looked into the snowblower. The vexing newspaper was almost completely gone. A few blackened pieces remained, which I easily removed.

I also removed the black plastic snowchute, the bottom of which was melted way beyond redemption and barely clung to the machine. A few other plastic pieces were gone, and the inside of the snowblower auger was blackened. But hey, that doggone newspaper was gone. And fire didn’t touch the part of the snowblower which housed the gas tank and engine.

But I wouldn’t be running the snowblower any more that year. That was clear. Fortunately, I didn’t need it.

I think it was many months before I told Pam what I had done.

I ordered a replacement chute and a few other parts. I finally put the thing back together in September. I started the machine up, and it came to life. But would it throw snow? Were there other little plastic pieces inside, vital parts, which had burned away without my knowledge?

I’m glad to report, today, that the snowblower worked great. Phew!

To this day, I haven’t thought of another way to have removed that newspaper. My marginally-controlled fire did the trick. But no way would I want to do it again.

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Book: “Legend,” by Marie Lu

“Legend” rocks. Plain and simple. Couldn’t stop reading, and didn’t want it to end.

The setting is a dystopian society in the western United States, called the Republic. Something happened–war? plague? natural disaster? simple economic collapse?–to turn Los Angeles into a wasteland of sorts. There’s a post-apocalyptic feel to it. Much of the population lives in poverty, is besieged by an ever-mutating plague, and is subject to an authoritarian government whose leader is now in his 44th year in power. The Republic is at war with the Colonies (the eastern US), and a rebel group called the Patriots battles the Republic from within.

“Legend,” published in November 2011, is told first-person, in alternating chapters, by two 15-year-olds, June and Day. Their lot in life is totally different. June aced the Trials, which every 10-year-old must endure, a way the Republic weeds out the weak. She’s a prodigy from a well-off family who fully believes in the righteousness of the Republic, and intends to be its premier soldier.

Day, on the other hand, was born in poverty. But he’s a different kind of prodigy, a master criminal, Number One on the Republic’s Most Wanted list. He navigates the devastated world with Tess, a 13-year-old girl he rescued, always keeping a low profile and doing what he can to survive. His main priority is watching out for the remnants of his family–mother, and two brothers, one of whom is very sick. The Republic doesn’t know Day’s identity, so they aren’t aware of his family, and Day wants to keep it that way.

Day is nearly captured while trying to steal medicine from a hospital. In the process, a soldier named Metias–the brother of June–is killed. June is unleashed to find Day, and she launches into the mission with vengeance front and center.

In many dystopian novels, the central character believes in the rightness of the society, but doubts arise and eventually, the protagonist turns against the society. Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” is a famous example. “Matched,” by Ally Condie, is a more recent example. “Legend” is another.

The reader knows, from the beginning (and from the promotional blurbs) that June and Day will run into each other, and that by the end of the book, enlightenment will come to June. That all happens. But how it all happens, and what happens in between–well, it’s a fabulous ride.

Marie Lu, before going fulltime as a writer, was art director for a video game company. She lives in Los Angeles. Lu got the idea for “Legend” after watching “Les Miserables” and imagining how that basic story–a master detective pursuing a notorious but good criminal–would play out in a contemporary setting.

“Legend,” though definitely juvenile fiction, is best suited for older teens. Bad things happen to people, cold-blooded things. It’s not graphic, but still.

“Legend” provides an interesting and believable world, a superb plot, an engaging structure (the alternating chapters), and well-drawn protagonists with plenty of depth. I eagerly await Book Two.

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Book: “Crossed,” by Ally Condie

“Crossed” (Nov. 2011) is the sequel to Allie Condie’s acclaimed 2010 book, “Matched,” which tells the story of Cassia, a girl coming of age in a dystopian society. I loved “Matched,” and wrote a glowing review in March 2011. Condie presented a truly interesting dystopian world, dribbling out pieces gradually to help the reader better assemble a clear picture.

The book ends with Cassia’s mysterious friend, Ky, being sent to the war-torn Outer Provinces. Cassia takes off after him.

“Crossed” begins with Ky and other boys, placed by the Society in a deserted town, being shelled by the faceless Enemy. Boys die. Ky is thrust into leadership. Cassia is soon put on Ky’s trail.

“Crossed” takes place entirely in the Outer Provinces, in a desert-like landscape. There is very little contact with the Society, and no contact with the Enemy, except for the night-time shelling. As a result, we learn very little to add to our knowledge from “Matched” about this world. You could guess that Condie wanted to give more attention to relationships…and yet, I didn’t see any relationships advanced. Well, I guess we learned more about Xander, whose role in this book was fairly small.

Stuff happens, but often mysteriously, senselessly, without explanation. I found myself fighting frustration the further I plodded into the book.

And frustration is what remained after I turned the last page (or whatever you do on a Nook).

“Matched” was very good for Condie, a former high school English teacher, a Brigham Young University graduate who lives with her husband and three children in Salt Lake City, Utah. Disney picked up the film rights for “Matched.” I’m happy for her. “Matched” showed that she’s a talented writer with a great imagination. The third book of the trilogy will be released in November 2012.

But if, with “Crossed,” Condie hoped to leave me wanting more, she failed. Tired of being left in the dark, I just wanted to move on to a different book.  Unfortunately, the book I moved on to was “The Scorch Trials,” the second book in a dystopian trilogy by James Dashner. It proved to be more of the same–things happening for no apparent reason.

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Watching God Grab Hold of People

For the past several months–since October–someone at my church has given a testimony every Sunday. Each one builds from the statement, “Because of Jesus….” Each is a story of life-change.

Anchor Community Church is located in a low-income neighborhood near downtown Fort Wayne. Lots of dysfunction, lots of messy backgrounds. Eighteen registered sex offenders live within a half mile of the church. People from shelters and half-way houses find their way to us. Too many of our people live in survival mode, struggling to get by day to day. These are the type of people who come through our doors and find what they need spiritually.

These people are also some of the most genuine, unassuming people I’ve known. And so, when they give their “Because of Jesus” stories, they don’t sugar-coat anything, or try to make themselves look good or admirable. They just put it all out there, unafraid to tell people, “This is who I am, warts and all.”

In these stories, I’ve learned so much about the people who worship with me each Sunday. Stories of addictions, of abusive childhoods and abusive marriages, of losing jobs, of abortion, of cutting, of poor choices galore, of losing loved ones way too early, of life spinning hopelessly out of control. And then, because of Jesus….

Almost every Sunday, I have tears in my eyes. That was the case with the most recent story, from an older lady. She became acquainted with Anchor when living in a homeless shelter. Her story moved me deeply.

I need to hear stories like this. I need to know that God is working in people’s lives. Intellectually, I know he is. But I need to see it, and see it regularly.

When I was growing up, I saw it regularly in altar calls. I don’t want to be one of those persons who acts as if methods used in earlier days were always better. But, I’m just sayin’, it impacted me when I saw a grown man or woman walk down the aisle, in full view of everyone, and kneel humbly at the altar. It told me that God was speaking directly to people’s hearts, and that here was a person whom God had grabbed during the service and shaken up. The person just had to go make things right, and didn’t care who was watching.

Could he/she have made things right by staying in the pew? That’s what we do today. With “all heads bowed and every eye closed,” we invite people to quickly raise their hand to signify a life-changing commitment. Only the pastor sees. Is that better than asking someone to walk to an altar in front of everyone else?

I can remember various times, growing up and as an adult, when I came under conviction during an altar call, and wrestled with the idea of getting out of my seat and trudging to the altar. I would usually tell myself (if the speaker didn’t emphasize it), “If Jesus died on the cross for me, why can’t I muster up the courage to simply walk down to the church altar?” Yet, it could be a mighty struggle. I’ll bet you’ve experienced the same struggle.

Sometimes I made the walk, sometimes I chickened out. Would I have responded more often if I could have just raised my hand quickly, so that only the evangelist, God, me, and assorted peekers would know? Probably. Would that have been better? Most certainly not. Maybe it’s my background, but simply raising a hand, with nobody seeing, trivializes the idea of making a commitment or taking a stand for God.

It’s not only good for the person making the commitment. It’s good for everyone else in attendance, because it shows them, “God is working in people’s lives.” As a child, I regularly saw people making decisions for Christ. But as an adult, with our enlightened secretive methods, not wanting to put anyone on the spot, I rarely see this.

Which is why these “Because of Jesus….” testimonies mean so much to me. God is working in the lives of these people with whom I worship, some of whom have been broken in unfathomable ways. I need to see God grab people by the lapels and shake them up. I know that he does it, whether or not it involves journeying to an altar. But seeing it and hearing about it sure pumps me up.

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